One of my early memories of my schooldays is of a flickering film in a classroom in a small school in Lasswade, Scotland.
Rictus (noun) The gaping of the mouth – often restricted to the corners of the mouth.
Wallace of Wallace and Gromit and Ed Milliband of the Labour Party are masters of the rictus grin. And so is, when faced with a situation of ambiguity, my grandson; the sort of situation which could be considered serious and yet, equally, could be seen as funny. When I was about the same age as my grandson an event at school placed me in the same dilemma.
Our teacher, Miss McIntosh announced with great enthusiasm (and to our unbridled delight) that instead of arithmetic we would be shown a film about leopards. I had seen leopards close up in Edinburgh Zoo peering dolefully but menacingly at me through the bars of their cage. A nature documentary wasn’t my film of choice but I was elated about missing couple of hours of the torture of multiplication tables
The projector clattered into action and pictures flickered through the dust motes. A small village was suddenly large on the screen and the camera panned around to focus on a group of beings with the most grotesquely deformed limbs and faces. We were now totally absorbed by the horrific scene, the absence of leopards forgotten. This was enthralling stuff.
As children we were quite accustomed to this level of horror. Saturday matinees at the local cinema, The Regal, known locally as the Flea Pit, served up, along with mandatory flea bites, two distinct film genres: The Wild West featuring men in big hats, six shooters and Apache Indians or African films featuring men in pith helmets, large elephant guns and monsters in murky lagoons. I imagine Miss McIntosh enjoyed a more sensitive genre of film.
Miss McIntosh, who had clearly taken leave of her senses to think a film about lepers was suitable for seven year olds soon literally did lose her senses. Hearing her gasp “Oh no! Oh god, these poor, poor people!” I looked up to see her with her fist jammed in her mouth as she swooned, slid down the wall and performed a slow, sliding tackle on my chair worthy of a yellow card. This was my ambiguous situation; serious yet at the same time funny. I turned to look at my classmates to see a row faces reflecting my rictus grin.
In the way that my granddaughter is 9 going on 39 girls even then displayed the same sense of maturity beyond their years. While I sat immobilised, entangled with Miss McIntosh’s sturdy legs Gwendoline Criddle and Margaret Duncan rushed to our teacher’s aid (Or, at least to stand and discuss the crisis over her inert body like indecisive paramedics) while Betty the class swot ran frantically for help.
Miss McIntosh was absent for a while and when she eventually resumed her duties no mention was made of lepers or indeed leopards.